On the fundaments of fantasy

Fantasy-nerd in-chief at The New York Times, Ross Douthat points me to an essay, Why is there no Jewish Narnia? As others have pointed out there are plenty of Jewish fantasy writers, including perhaps the most prominent mainstream fantasist today, Neil Gaiman. But this part caught my attention:

...and whether it is called Perelandra, Earthsea, Amber, or Oz, this world must be a truly alien place. As Ursula K. Leguin says: "The point about Elfland is that you are not at home there. It's not Poughkeepsie."

Amber refers to Roger Zelazny's Amber series. Roger Zelazny's father was an immigrant from Poland, Joseph Frank Zelazny. I can't figure out whether Joseph Zelazny was Catholic or Jewish, but I think one can't assume he was necessarily a gentile. Earthsea refers to Ursula K. Le Guin's fantasy world. She was born Ursula Kroeber, her father being the prominent cultural anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who grew up in New York City's German Jewish community. Of the few secondary worlds the author names, turns out several may have been created by people of Jewish background.

As to whether fantasy is fundamentally a Christian-Pagan genre or whatever, I really doubt it. Martha Wells' Wheel of the Infinite draws on the medieval Khmer Empire to create her secondary world. R. Scott Bakker in his dark series which begins with The Prince of Nothing synthesizes Muslim, Hindu, Mediterranean and Northern sources in generating his secondary world. In fact, the primary action focuses on a civilization which to a great extent is analogous to a medieval Mediterranean commonwealth of states, but the religion is clearly derived from Hinduism, not Christianity. You can get really obscure if you want, Dennis Jones' The Mask and the Sorceress has most of the action occurring in a society which seems to reflect the sensibilities of Bronze Age Minoan Crete. Jones' prose and the plot are pedestrian, but the world is novel precisely because it isn't out of central casting. I could give many other examples. The dominant backdrop in fantasy is surely one of medieval Northern settings, with a synthesis of Christian and pre-Christian elements, but it isn't that hard to find secondary worlds which differ if you want something unfamiliar.

The basic elements of modern fantasy can be found in the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Ramayana. The Odyssey and the Iliad to boot. You combine a mythic background, rich and multi-textured, with an appealing plot and flat characters. Why did Tolkien produce works which were so strongly inflected by the North? Because he was a philologist whose bread & butter were works such as Beowulf! What do you expect him to produce? Is Christianity fundamentally more comfortable with the pagan than Judaism, as the author above asserts? I doubt it. The basics of Northern fantasy draw from a rich peasant cultural folk tradition which the Christian church ignored at best, and attempted to suppress at worst. The tradition was most robust in the regions which were Christianized last, so that relatively thick cultural memory remained from which to draw during the 19th century Romantic revival of national traditions. It is notable that Ireland in particular in the British Isles preserved its own mythic tradition; I chalk this up to the indigenous origins of Christianization, so that the culture-bearers of the past were not superseded by missionaries who dismissed the indigenous stories as being part & parcel of the pagan intellectual edifice. Tolkien was in part trying to create an Anglo-Saxon mythic cycle from fragments such as Beowulf and Scandinavian analogs. The Irish have no need of reconstruction. Culturally the Jews are very distant from their peasant origins, and naturally much more detached from their pagan past than Northern Europeans. For the past 1,000 years Ashkenazi Jews have been an urban minority, as insulated from the world of faerie as Christian priests. No wonder that Jewish authors, such as Neil Gaiman, draw upon Northern motifs. How popular is urban fantasy as a distinct genre anyway?

Personal background's influence is pretty clear when you look at the novels of someone like David Anthony Durham. His Acacia series is set in a secondary world where populations and societies which are black loom larger than is the norm in fantasy. Black cultures exist in many fantasy worlds, but only as part of the distant background (or, as in the case of Tolkien, as part of the southern hordes who fought for the Dark Lord). Perhaps it is coincidental, but Durham is one of the few black fantasy writers. Similarly, Brandon Sanderson's work is partly reflective of his Mormonism.

Sanderson, Stephenie Meyer and Orson Scott Card are one of a large contingent of Mormon fantasy and science writers. Why so many? I have no idea. I'm sure I could make some stuff up about Mormonism's affinity for the fantastical and unbelievable.

More like this

I was pretty sure that article was less about Jewish fantasy writers and more about popular fantasy inspired by Jewish themes. Gaiman and others are Jewish, sure, but their fantasies have only passing references to Judaism.

I personally think there's a bit of embarrassment involved. Either their too secular to care, or they see Biblical allegories as too easy or hackneyed.

Is it possible also that superheros are the Jewish equivalent?

Superman and Spiderman were both made by Jews. As were the X-Men. Of Batman's two creators, one was Jewish and most of the well known Batman villains have Jewish creators.

yes. but he starts:
Tolkien and Lewisâs gentility would hardly bear comment were it not for the fact that they are not isolated examples in this regard, but only the most well-known figures within an entire literary genreâperhaps the only such genreâin which Jewish practitioners are strikingly rare. I cannot think of a single major fantasy writer who is Jewish, and there are only a handful of minor ones of any note. To no other field of modern literature have Jews contributed so little.

What would be Jewish themes that are not already in the shared common tropes of fantasy? What would make fantasy more Jewish.

relatively thick cultural memory

That might have something to do with it. I think fantasy literature has to carefully straddle a line between the familiar and the alien in order to achieve popularity, and thus large amounts of successful fantasy literature are based on extant myths and distorted history.

While you could draw from practically any cultural or mythical tradition as such a source for fantasy literature, success probably comes most easily to works that draw on the background that is already shared by the largest group of potential readers - thus, works drawn from Non-European traditions might not necessarily be less numerous to begin with, they might just reach huge popularity more rarely (in Europe and the U.S.).

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 05 Mar 2010 #permalink

Our culture is steeped in Jewish fantasy. Beginning with Genesis.

How different is the pattern in Sci-Fi?

Impressionistically not too different I don't think. I can think of Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison and Charles Stross (incidentally and appropriately the author of a fantasy series named the Merchant Princes about a clan of sliders who use their ability to run a trade network).

Correct me if I'm wrong.

Interesting article, although it does seem rather muddled, as WEingrad seems to conflate a putative dearth of Jewish Fantasy authors (a very dubious notion, as many have pointed out) with an absence of Tolkienesque type "high fantasy." A few observations:

1. Tolkien was motivated by some of the same ethnic-nationalist yearnings that underlie WEingard's desire for an explicitly Jewish High Fantasy genre. Tolkien was disturbed by the lack of a purely English mythological cycle.Although there was a British mythology (Arthur, Merlin, etc) readily at hand, that was not the same thing. LOTR, then, was ,at least to some degree, conceived as a remedy to this lack.

2. Without Tolkien, it is rather hard to imagine High Fantasy in its current shape, as many of his precursors lacked his interesting combination of English patriotism (not British) and fervent religiosity. To see just how different Anglophone high fantasy might have been without the massive shadow of Tolkien, simply read the works of Dunsany, Eddison, and James Branch Cabell (an American, but still). A high fantasy tradition built upon the framework provided by such men would have been quite different in tone, although certain tropes would have remained.

3. For a glimpse of this alternate world of HF, take a look at Poul Anderson's THE BROKEN SWORD and FRitz Leiber's FAFHRD AND THE GRAY MOUSER series, with Anderson's romance being, perhaps, the more telling of the two, as it draws upon the same Northern materials as does Tolkien's work, only in a vastly different key.

5. What about C.S. Lewis in my non-LOTR world? Although influential, Lewis has never been the genre-shaper that Tolien was and is. For that matter, as a children's author, he is nit really part of the HF field. His peers are Baum and Carrol, not Tolkien and Eddison.

True razib, I believe that's overstated. Jews are just used to looking at the top of almost any list of academic pursuits and seeming themselves. However, it's less the case with literature, especially popular literature, regardless of genre. Popular fiction writing, while not disreputable, is not a career that Jewish communities emphasize. As with fine art, sports, and other talent heavy careers, popular fiction is seen as career where success is more elusive, and therefore an atypical career choice. That, and long-form written fiction, especially fantasy, is almost completely absent from the Jewish tradition.

Adela, you could (back-)explain most tropes as Jewish, but having characters, events, and teachings that are all intimately tied to Judaism... there isn't much of that. If there were a fantasy story based on those of Shabbatai Tzvi or Masada, it would be instantly recognizable to many Jews. These types of stories aren't non-incidentally employed in popular literature.

Why so many mormon fantasy and science writers, you ask? Why so many mormon olympians or why so many mormon inventors?
television - Philo Farnsworth
electric traffic light - Lester Wire
odometer - William Clayton
headphones - Nathaniel Baldwin
hearing aid - Harvey Fletcher
audiometer - Harvey Fletcher
stereo sound - Harvey Fletcher
video games - Nolan Bushnell
transistor radio - Marvin Harris
modern word processor - Alan Ashton (WordPerfect) [Read the history online]
CD/DVD technology - Robert B. Ingebretsen (plus other physicists, engineers and computer scientists at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah)
electric guitar - Alvino Rey
department store - ZCMI, world's first dept. store, started by Brigham Young
fry sauce - Don Carlos Edwards
scrapbooking - [Source: CNN]
Zip drive - Iomega
repeating rifle ("Browning rifle") - Jonathan Browning
automatic shotgun (and many more firearms) - John Moses Browning
NetWare (Network Operating System) - Drew Major
condominums - Keith Romney
women's buttonless one-piece bathing suit - Rose Marie Reid (patent #2,535,018)
photopermeable swimsuit - Rose Marie Reid (for full-body tanning)
flatbed scanner
DOOM, Quake, Civilization, Age of Empires, etc. - Sandy Petersen
artificial heart - Robert K. Jarvik (inventor/doctor) & Barney Clark (first recipient)
heart bypass machine used in open heart surgery - Homer R. Warner
numerous patents for beam-surface processes (in free-electron lasers) - Norman Tolk
Slurry (aqueous) explosives - Melvin Cook (Nobel Prize winner)
tetrahedron press - William Hall
synthetic diamonds - William Hall
Sorenson video codec - James L. Sorenson

There you have it, Mormons are very intelligent.

I think that a lot of fantasy has a Volkisch-nationalist undertone which is uncomfortable for Jews. Tolkein and CS Lewis are examples. Jews have an institutionalist "nostalgis" for old Jerusalem, etc., but any other past than that has been worse for Jews than the present, even considering Hitler.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 05 Mar 2010 #permalink

You got me there Ryan, if mormons invented scrapbooking and the buttonless swimsuit they must be intellegent. Why don't you try wearing your magic underwear on your head, I think you need more divine protection there.

By dave chamberlin (not verified) on 05 Mar 2010 #permalink

I was gonna add my two cents about how I recently realized how jewtastic Clark Kent and Lois Lane are (I think that's pretty cool), but this thread is starting to smell a little icky.

By CS Shelton (not verified) on 05 Mar 2010 #permalink

Speaking of the non-peasant nature of Ashkenazi Jews in European history, this Phil Weiss thread seems relevant:
Steve Sailer must be on the same wavelength as Phil, since he mocked Tarantino for making the French Jewish family from "Inglourious Basterds" dairy-farmers.

That does leave a question for me though. Regular readers know that cities have long been population sinks. Cochran & Harpending have said that Jews were urban and segregated into middlemen occupations long enough for significant evolutionary adaptations, and with the richest having the most kids. There was also a boom in the Ashkenazi population around the 19th century, when for the first time they outnumbered Sephardim. Why didn't their population shrink like that of other urbanites?

I believe the essay in question was primarily looking at the lack of Jewish themes in fantasy literature, rather than the authors' genealogies.

One of the comments above makes an interesting point - perhaps "Jewish fantasy" indeed flowered in the superhero genre, for Superman is certainly replete with Jewish themes, iconography and allusions. Perhaps that is because its creators grew up steeped in their Jewish culture and did not seek to distance themselves from it.

And traditional Jewish folk stories of the shtetl have enough "natural" or at least small town elements to them, (to wit the many stories of Rebbes wandering deep dark forests alone) to say Ashkenazi Jews are just too urbanized to write Jewish fantasy.

I suspect the fact that mysticism is such a carefully guarded discipline in Jewish thought, to preserve its strong monotheistic emphasis, has more to do with it. (In general, Jews don't want people dwelling on opposing dark and good forces - there is only one Force. The theological nuances and complexities that arise from doing so are usually reserved for trained Kabbalists and Chassidic Rebbes.)

Roger Zelazny was born of Catholic parents, raised Catholic, and later declared that he had lapsed and belonged to no organized religion whatsoever. He remained that way for the rest of his life.